Last week Tunisia’s Interior Ministry released a statement that it had identified an international network for smuggling terrorists to Europe through Tunisia, using foreign counterfeited passports. The statement said that the National Unit for the Investigation of Terrorist Crimes had found Iraqi and Turkish nationals using this network in an effort to reach Europe through Tunisia. Four Iraqis and a Tunisian are now in custody awaiting proceedings.
Not long before that, the Tunisian Interior Ministry announced the incarceration of two alleged terrorists related to the man known as Saif Allah H, a Tunisian arrested for the failed biological assault attempt in Germany on June 20th. An official spokesman for the judicial department concerned with combating terrorism in Tunisia said that the investigation has showed that one of the defendants attempting to join the ‘terrorist groups’ in Syria was unsuccessful and agreed with Saif Allah H “to execute consequent terrorist operations in the countries they are in, Tunisia and Germany, using a traditional bomb”. According to the official statement, the other suspect was tasked with securing counterfeit travel documents for Saif Allah H to facilitate his escape to Europe.
These developments have brought the issue of returning Tunisian fighters from Libya and Syria back into the spotlight. The return of these fighters impacts not only in Tunisia and the region but also in Europe through the irregular migration taking place across the Mediterranean.
Returning Islamic State (IS) fighters became a concern as early as 2016 after the defeat of IS in Iraq and Syria, with many foreign IS fighters wanting to go back to their home countries. Up to 2015, Tunisia had almost 3000 IS fighters, a number excluding those who joined the Al-Nusra Front, the Syrian branch of Al-Qaeda. According to a study by The Washington Institute for the Near East published in January, the number of Tunisian fighters in jihadist groups in Libya had reached 1500 fighters in the period 2011- 2017.
In May 2018, the Tunisian Institute for Strategic Studies, an official research organisation, published a risk assessment on the threats of returning Tunisian fighters. The study is based on interviews with 82 returning fighters (including five women) currently imprisoned in Tunisia.
The survey indicates that individuals between the ages of 25 and 29 represent 44.8% of those who fought or attempted to fight abroad. This age group is also the one with the highest number of job seekers.
The study shows that 74.1% of those people were not married, so leaving for the battleground was a simple decision for them to make when compared to those with family responsibilities. Additionally, terrorist organisations such as IS attracted fighters by showing how easily they could marry and have a wife, without the complications of the rules and traditions of Tunisia.
Of those interviewed, 87.9% of the jihadists had not completed their higher education, 43.1% only received secondary education while 24.1% stopped after primary education.
Hadi Yehmid, a researcher into Islamist groups and an author, told 7Dnews: “Imprisonment is a necessary security measure for all those who had previously joined terrorist groups inside the country and abroad, but it remains a temporary solution. Those 800 imprisoned returning fighters will not spend the rest of their lives in prison. The country must decide on their fate after the end of their sentence and the potential threats after their release. There must be cultural, educational and mental rehabilitation plans.”
The report of the Strategic Studies Institute recommended the development of a national plan to deal with terrorists, their reintegration into society and the launch of a rehabilitation program for imprisoned fighters. The study highlighted the fact that the current measures for dealing with terrorists are limited to security and related areas such as imprisonment, sentencing and monitoring. Looking beyond this, the study pointed out the necessity of reforming public policies, especially those targeting young people and in educational, religious and citizenship contexts.
Another threat arises from placing the returning fighters in general prisons and allowing them to mix with regular prisoners. This results in increased recruitment of new fighters, as reported in many instances. An example is the Tunisian rapper, Marwan Aldweri, known as Amino, who was imprisoned in 2012 on marijuana-related charges. Upon completion of his year-long sentence, he became a jihadist and travelled to Syria to join IS. He was later killed in an airstrike in Mosul in Iraq.